(Reuters) – National tennis federations hailed the leadership of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in representing and protecting players’ rights after its decision to suspend tournaments in China over the treatment of former doubles world number one Peng Shuai.
Peng was unseen in public for nearly three weeks after she posted a message on social media in November accusing China’s former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex, with her whereabouts becoming a matter of international concern.
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the government have commented on Peng’s accusation and the topic has been blocked on China’s heavily censored internet.
The WTA on Thursday suspended tournaments in China over the treatment of Peng. Beijing took umbrage and though they did not directly mention the WTA, they opposed the “politicization of sports”.
The WTA’s decision, which could cost the women’s organisation hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship, was applauded by the tennis fraternity.
Tennis Canada said it had taken a clear stance on the issue due to deep concerns for Peng’s health and security.
“We feel very responsible for the many young women that travel the world to compete and it’s essential we do everything for them to be safe, otherwise our players and our sport is at risk,” a Tennis Canada spokesperson told Reuters.
The spokesperson added that the federation respected the leadership shown by the WTA.
The Italian Tennis Federation said it fully backed the WTA’s stance over the Peng situation, a statement echoed by Tennis New Zealand, which added it would work with the organisation to provide any support required.
Tennis Australia said that the health and wellbeing of Peng would remain its priority.
“We commend the WTA on the strong leadership they have shown in the representation and protection of the rights of players,” it added in a statement.
“We’ll continue to support (WTA CEO) Steve Simon and the WTA team as we work together to gain assurance on Peng’s welfare.”
Peng, a three-time Olympian, appeared in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children’s tennis event in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament’s organisers showed.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had held a second video call with the 35-year-old on Wednesday following one late last month.
But Wang Ling-hua, the acting secretary-general of Taiwan’s tennis association said the WTA had to act in the way it did.
“… The WTA has its own thinking. I think this is what the whole world should do. The WTA is after all a leader in women’s professional tennis,” Wang said.
“If it didn’t respond in this way, I think that would not be good for female athletes.”
The Korean Tennis Association said that once Peng is proven to be safe, the WTA’s suspension of tournaments in China should be handled cautiously.
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar, Sudipto Ganguly, Ian Ransom, Sangmi Cha and Sarah Wu; Editing by Rohith Nair)